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ClassicsOnline Home » ROSSINI, G.: Occasione fa il ladro (L') (Martirosyan, Antonelou, Ruggeri, Utzeri, Cortes, Wurttemberg Philharmonic, Fogliani)
Composed by the young Gioachino Rossini in eleven days to comply with a contractual commitment, L’occasione fa il ladro (Opportunity Makes A Thief) is a comedy of multiple confusions. Count Alberto, travelling to be wed to a fiancée he has yet to meet, leaves an inn with the wrong suitcase. Don Parmenione audaciously adopts the Count’s identity, determined to take the bride for himself. This single-act burletta is a swift and deftly plotted moral drama, Rossini’s exuberant inspiration poured into interactions both tender and hilariously bewildering.
By Didier VanMoere
Gioachino Rossini (1792–1868)
L’occasione fa il ladro
Burletta per musica in un atto
Libretto: Luigi Prividali, after Eugène Scribe’s play Le prétendu par hasard, ou L’occasion fait le larron
Berenice – Elizaveta Martirosyan, Soprano
Ernestina, her maid – Fanie Antonelou, Mezzo-soprano
Don Parmenione – Gianpiero Ruggeri, Baritone
Martino, his servant – Mauro Utzeri, Baritone
Count Alberto – Garðar Thór Cortes, Tenor
Don Eusebio, uncle of Berenice – Joan Ribalta, Tenor
Württemberg Philharmonic Orchestra
Harpsichord: Matthias Manasi
Recorded live at the Kursaal, Bad Wildbad, Germany, 14, 17 and 21 July 2005 for the XVIIth ROSSINI IN WILDBAD Festival
(Artistic director: Jochen Schönleber)
A Co-production with Südwestrundfunk
The fact that Rossini returned at all to the little Teatro San Moisè in Venice after his stunning triumph with La pietra del paragone at La Scala in Milan is due to the success at the San Moisè the previous year of the sentimental farsa, L’inganno felice. On the day after the enthusiastically-received première on 8 January 1812, Antonio Cera, the director of the Teatro San Moisè, wrote to Rossini’s mother: “You can pride yourself on having raised a young man who, in a few years’ time, will be the toast of Italy and people will see that Cimarosa is not dead but that his genius has passed on to Rossini.” With that prophecy the impresario was absolutely right and he did not hesitate in doing what any good businessman would do—he put the shooting star under contract lest he should take flight: “I will tell you something else as well—that I have contracted him to write three further farse, one for the spring, one for the summer and one for the Carnival.” After that it all went very quickly for Rossini. Even while he was occupied with Ciro in Babilonia in Ferrara in February 1812, he was—thanks to his good contacts among singers—commissioned to write an opera for the autumn season at La Scala. At first, after Ferrara, he was back to Venice in order to write the first of the three operas commissioned by Cera. Somewhat disenchanted, Rossini intimated that he did not much like Foppa’s libretto. All the same the performance of La scala di seta on 9 May was a huge success, as Rossini himself wrote to his mother: “Show-stopper on a grand scale. From the overture to the last note there was nothing but tremendous applause.” As a result he was commissioned to write a serious opera for the Gran Teatro La Fenice. and the last of the farse, Il Signor Bruschino, for Cera, in January 1813, was to lead to one of his biggest failures; biographers even spread rumours that Rossini had taken revenge on his impresario for the poor libretto (mistaking it for La scala di seta?) by writing some bizarre effects, such as the violinists tapping their bows on the candle-holders in the overture. Yet previously Rossini did go to Milan where he spent the summer months working on La pietra del paragone. He made friends straightaway there in artistic and social circles and even dined with Milan’s minister of the interior, Luigi Vaccari. Attacks of a fever—perhaps the first signs of a creative overexertion—resulted in the postponement of his two-act opera, which finally reached the stage at La Scala on 26 September 1812, to overwhelming and sustained applause. By this time Rossini was already supposed to be in Venice where Cera awaited him impatiently on the strength of his contract. But Rossini pre-empted the situation by getting Vaccari to take with him to the prefecture in Venice a commendatory letter saying that it was inadvisable for himself to undertake a sudden journey because of the stage which the fever had reached. The efforts of the highest diplomatic circles must have paid off, as can be gathered from Rossini’s letter to his mother of 30 October: “Just arrived [in Venice]; the impresario Cera created a scene and wanted me to pay him for the costs incurred [for the postponement] and to pay expenses since I had not fulfilled my duty. In the end we came to an understanding when I explained my reasons, admittedly not to Cera himself, since I would not demean myself to speak to him, but to the government.” As a result Rossini committed himself: “…to write the farsa in fifteen days, and today is the first of those”. But he undersold even himself with this pledge, as he reported home on 18 November: “My eleven-day music gave much pleasure in the rehearsals.”
Yet at its première on 24 November 1812 L’occasione fa il ladro could not build on previous successes. Rossini made light of it: “My farsa was staged the day before yesterday. As to the music, that gave pleasure, but not the interpretation”, while in its edition of 26 November the Giornale Dipartimentale dell’Adriatico reported in somewhat more detail: “Maestro Rossini has written the music in eleven days, too short a period even for the panache of such an ardent genius. More experienced composers would never take such a risk. In fact it is important to study closely the quality, the vocal range and the character of the singers for whom it is written, which is not always immediately possible. Mr Rossini’s music contains much that is good, which cannot be denied, above all in the introduction, in the first section of Paccini’s aria [Don Parmenione], in Berti’s aria [Count Alberto] and in the aria of Canonici [Berenice], but not everything was up to scratch and one has the impression that this was owing to force of circumstances rather than to the fault of anyone in particular. Mr Rossini’s genius is well known here: he has given undoubted evidence of this both here and on other stages, and this occasion will not damage his reputation; and neither will the artists who appear in the current autumn season be affected. In all honesty we must add that on both of the subsequent evenings the farsa had more success.”
From this report it can be gathered that the opera was in no way to be considered a failure; on the contrary it seems that the extremely short time-scale of the composition was merely an irritation. Subsequently this farsa enjoyed a comparatively wide circulation, which can be deduced from the extant numbers of scores from that time.
The libretto was provided not by one of the two official playwrights, Gaetano Rossi or Giuseppe Foppa, but by the lawyer Luigi Prividali. He had given up his profession in order to devote himself entirely to the theatre and wrote around twenty libretti. In addition he worked as an impresario in various theatres but he made his mark most noticeably over many years as a theatre critic. In this rôle he was among the most passionate champions of Rossini, to whom he was also personally close. One account described Prividali as a poor devil, who “…lived in a state of permanent bitterness with constant bills and a damaged liver”, yet none of this can be sensed in his libretto.
For a long time it was believed that Prividali had devised his libretto off the cuff, until a comedy with the title Le prétendu par hasard, ou L’occasion fait le larron (The Pretender By Chance, or Opportunity Makes A Thief) surfaced, which had been published in Paris in 1810 by the once-famous Eugène Scribe under the abbreviated title “M.A.E***”. Perhaps the idea and, above all, the title really did come from this work, but the similarities in the plot are so slight—reserved for another, unknown draft—that Prividali should really be credited as the original creator of this comedy of confusion. An example is the switching of the suitcases, which Don Parmenione attributes to an opportunist thief, but which is not in Scribe. Incidentally, this initial situation was later adopted as the alternative title, namely Il cambio della valigia (The Exchange of the Suitcase), which led some biographers to think that there were in fact two different operas. In contrast to Rossini’s other Venetian farse there is here a proper change of scene (from the inn outside Naples to Berenice’s house). Prividali’s lines are elegant, the situations and dialogue witty, the plot clear and deft. The dual comedy of confusion serves to put two different couples—one passionate and comical, the other sentimental and distinguished—in opposition to each other. Thus both large ensembles—the quintet in the middle of the act and the Finale – begin with the exuberant coming together of Don Parmenione and Ernestina and find their quiet centre in the meeting of Count Alberto and Berenice, before they finish in the confusion of the ensemble and with the closing short Finale.
Naturally the extremely short time-scale of the composition left its mark on the whole operation. Rossini entrusted the writing of all the recitatives to a colleague, a practice which had begun first when he was ill while writing La pietra del paragone. The tonal transitions between the recitatives and the following numbers are sometimes extremely clumsy and Rossini’s notation is flawed in some cases. He re-orchestrated two passages in the quintet, probably after he had heard the results of the first rehearsals. But apart from this Rossini drew on unlimited resources and the music poured out of him. In the process the young composer did not shy away from new solutions: he dispensed with the customary overture and began the opera with an instrumental curtain-raiser which runs into the first number, the introduction. The fact that he borrowed here the storm music from La pietra del paragone had nothing to do with a shortage of time or laziness and rather more with a procedure, typical of Rossini, of recycling earlier, similar material. In this case it was “Notte oscura, e tempestosa” (The dark and stormy night) which led him back automatically to the storm scene in La pietra. From the outset the inspiration of the work, which was written in just eleven days, is clearly evident. That goes as much for the brilliant, sweeping passages such as the stretta in the introduction with its sparkling drinking-song or Don Parmenione’s zest for action when faced with the bride’s portrait, as well as the lyrical moments which at the end of the opera are channelled into the little duet between the sweethearts Alberto and Berenice. How lucky we are that Rossini returned to the San Moisè!
 The countryside outside Naples with a solitary inn. During the dark night a violent storm breaks out.
 In the safety of the dining-room Don Parmenione enjoys the storm raging outside while he eats a good meal. In contrast his servant Martino flinches at every flash of lightning and rumble of thunder. It is only with difficulty that his master persuades Martino to dine with him.
 Another traveller, Count Alberto, thoroughly drenched, comes into the inn, hoping that the elements will not hinder his plans for love. His servant (a mute rôle) carelessly puts his master’s suitcase in the corner. To the accompaniment of thunder and lightning the guests greet one another and strike up a pleasant drinking-song to Bacchus and the female sex, while Martino, in his anxiety, feels himself misunderstood by both.
 Pleasantries are exchanged, but Parmenione does not take up Alberto’s offer to continue the journey together; in spite of Martino’s objection he asserts that he will not journey to Naples. Alberto explains that nothing less than his own wedding to an unknown fiancée draws him there. Since the storm has abated he will continue with his journey; he wakes up his servant who, still half-dazed, leaves the inn with the wrong suitcase. Left alone together, Parmenione explains to Martino that he is not accountable to anyone and hence he will travel on to Naples alone. When he goes to pay he notices to his dismay that his suitcase has been confused with that of the other traveller. Martino, who has recovered his composure, delights in the advantageous mix-up and breaks open the “wrong” suitcase. As he hoped he finds money and jewellery but Parmenione tells him to keep his hands off. But when a portrait of a beautiful lady and the Count’s passport turn up Parmenione cannot contain himself: he wants the bride.
 Delighted by this stroke of luck and by the portrait, Parmenione turns a deaf ear to Martino’s warnings: in spite of the audacious idea and the danger of ending up in prison, the beautiful face justifies his plan—he will pass himself off as Count Alberto!
 In the elegant house of the Marchesa Berenice the arrival of the bridegroom is eagerly awaited. Don Eusebio, her uncle, wants Ernestina, who was taken into the house after falling on hard times, to be regarded as Berenice’s niece and first maid.
 Berenice faces her wedding with apprehension and lacks her usual pluckiness. But then she pulls herself together and decides that she will only allow herself to become involved in a love that is mutual.
 She explains to Ernestina, who has just arrived, that her deceased father promised her hand in marriage to the son of a friend who, after extensive travels, will present himself today. In order to test with whom he will fall in love, and with her uncle’s agreement, she swaps clothes with Ernestina: she will appear as the bride and Berenice will play the part of the maid. In the meantime Martino and Parmenione, now dressed in Alberto’s dress-coat as the real bridegroom, reach their destination.
 Impetuously Parmenione introduces himself to the supposed bride and, even though he notices that she does not look like the portrait, he immediately falls in love with her. For her part Ernestina finds him bizarre and likeable and regrets already that she is not the real bride. They hurry off excitedly to inform Eusebio of the arrival.
 The recently-arrived Alberto meanwhile believes immediately that he recognizes Berenice as the bride and is deeply disappointed to learn from her that she is only the maid, while she acknowledges to herself that she could wish for no better man.
 Eusebio comes running in to enquire after the bridegroom and Alberto introduces himself as such. But at the same moment Ernestina comes in with Parmenione, who brazenly introduces himself as Don Alberto. The three residents of the house ask themselves apprehensively who is the impostor, while the two rivals struggle to retain their composure.
 Eusebio demands an explanation. Alberto reaffirms his identity but with the passport Parmenione can prove that he is Count Alberto. In the confusion all five think they are losing their heads.
 Ernestina ponders her situation: having once been jilted by an ungrateful man she sees herself courted once again by a possible marriage impostor. Then Alberto comes in and, with noble dignity, confirms that he is the bridegroom. He forgives her for having fallen in love in good faith with an impostor.
 Alberto absolves the bride from her promise of marriage since anyway he feels no love for her; but to prevent his good name being usurped as a suspected adventurer he cannot let it go at that.
 Berenice decides to put the supposed bridegroom to the test. He cockily explains to the pretend maid that after his marriage he will take her into his service. She asserts that she is not a maid at all, but the bride.
 Parmenione is rattled, but he parries her remark that he could be regarded as a confidence trickster with the evidence of his identity. Berenice cross-examines him with a whole series of test questions and Parmenione becomes ever more entangled. Finally they heap reproaches on each other.
 Eusebio and Ernestina try to find out from Martino more about his master.
 The crafty manservant portrays a picture of Parmenione, which produces no clarity and shows him to be one of those characters one find everywhere.
 Alberto confronts Parmenione. The two rivals get into a fierce quarrel and the noise attracts the attention of Berenice. Alberto is ready to renounce the wedding if the other woman will be the bride, while Parmenione would also be willing to marry her if she weren’t the bride. Berenice is outraged that the two men are making a deal over her.
 First and foremost Berenice herself wants to know who is the real bridegroom. Alberto offers her his hand, which Parmenione readily grants him. Berenice is groping in the dark. She loses her composure and threatens the men that they will still regret their plot.
 Eusebio has learned from Martino of Parmenione’s shady past life but Ernestina defends him. Then he steps forward and introduces himself as Don Parmenione di Castelnuovo who is on an assignment to track down the sister of a friend, who had disappeared. Ernestina reveals herself to be this person and Parmenione offers her his hand.
 Eusebio wants to know who the other stranger is, Parmenione confirms that yonder is the real bridegroom. Eusebio rejoices with both pairs of lovers at the happy outcome. In the meantime Alberto and Berenice, finally aware of their true identities, come together tenderly.
 Martino announces that there will be an explanation from his master. Parmenione asks forgiveness for his trickery and justifies it with the portrait from the suitcase. Alberto reassures Berenice that it is the picture of his sister which he had brought with him as a bridal gift to her. Parmenione confesses that he had noticed the mistake immediately but had instantly fallen in love with Ernestina for whom, as it finally transpired, he was actually looking. Among the general rejoicing at the double wedding one can recognize the moral that there is sometimes a good excuse for opportunity making thieves.
English translations by David Stevens
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